My phone tells me I’min now in Uzbekistan – I have a signal again, but we’re still sitting in the train on the border with Turkmenistan. Our sightseeing in Khiva is due to start at 11a.m. but as it’s now 10.55 and we’re not yet in Urgench, our first stop in Uzbekistan, so I don’t think that’s likely to happen. Uzbekistan is immediately distinguished by mud walls, thatched outhouses, donkey carts and a girl in a miniskirt. As I noted before, and as has been the case all through Central Asia, the women generally wear long floral skirts and headscarves. The men sport jeans, tee shorts and windcheaters. Ukraine was the breadbasket of the USSR and Uzbekistan the cotton basket. Fields of fluffy bushes are already visible.

Khiva, Uzbekistan

I’ve been to Uzbekistan before (read about that here), but not to Khiva. So, this will be the most interesting part of this journey in Uzbekistan. Finally, we make it to the most westerly of the great Uzbek Silk Road cities. Khiva is split into two parts. The outer town, called Dichan Kala, was formerly protected by a wall with 11 gates. The inner town, or Itchan Kala, is encircled by brick walls, an ark fortress. The foundations are believed to have been laid in the 10th century, but the present-day crenellated walls date back to the late 17th century. They're 10 metres tall, with blue tiled panels and gates guarded by tall towers.

The 5 Ms of mosques, minarets, madrassas, mausoleums and museums remain the highlights. The Itchan Kala is home to more than 50 historic monuments (mostly restored or rebuilt) and 250 old houses, mostly dating from the 18th or the 19th centuries.

There are several madrassahs; the Sherghazi Khan madrassah, was built in the 18th century by slaves and is one of the oldest buildings in Ichan-Kala. The Tach Khaouli Palace is covered in blue tiles and has lavishly decorated rooms. The Djuma Mosque, is has a hypostyle hall with 112 columns borowed from other old structures.

The contrast with Turkmenistan is stark. The people are incredibly friendly, queuing up to have their photos taken in long strings across the main square. TC Ted, like a baby in his harness, (fashioned out of my listening device lanyard), attracts constant attention and greetings. He attends a wedding too.

There are streams of brides, incongruously wearing white European stye wedding dresses, entering the Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum in various elaborate processions. Pahlavan Mahmud was an Iranian poet and wrestler who lived from 1247-1326. His tomb was a place of pilgrimage that grew so popular they eventually decided to enhance and beautify it. It's even being painted today. I have a lively conversation about cameras with the wedding photographers, who abandon their task to try out my telephoto lens.

We eat afternoon tea of overly sweet pastries, Arab style, on a raised carpeted platform with a low table. Then Tino from the train insists that we climb a 100 step narrow tower, the Islam Khodja Minaret. This, despite the fact that the guide has told us it is really difficult, as there is a dark and steep spiral staircase going up and it's even worse coming down. The guide was right, but there are great views.

There is an alternative 40 step wider turquoise tower, that we can see from the top, but that's closed. That tower is an unfinished minaret, stopped at 26 metres when the builder Amin Khan died on a Persian battlefield mid 19th century. It has generated several legends. One master builder who refused to comply with instructions and work without pay, is supposedly walled up inside it. Or the master was executed before he could finish as the Emir of Bukhara had been promised a similar one. Or the builder was passionately in love with the emir's wife and he built the tower, so he could see her. But he was discovered, before it could be completed.

Bukhara the Sequel, Uzbekistan

Next, a return to Beautiful Bukhara (read much more about Bukhara here). Fortunately, we begin with two sites I didn't see last time. First, the emir's summer palace, The Sitorai-Mokhi-Khosa Palace, reflected nicely in the lake. It's, somewhat ironically, styled after the winter palace in St Petersburg. Here, the emir indicated which lucky lady he had chosen for the night, by throwing her an apple.

Next, the Bug Pit, the hole in the ground prison at Zindon where Stoddart (and Connelly who foolishly went to look for him) were imprisoned when trying to undermine Russian influence in Bukhara. The emir was not impressed and eventually executed them both in Samarkand. It's all fascinatingly explained in Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game.

More 5 Ms revisited: The fortress Ark, crenellations framed beautifully against a blue sky, the sultan's (Ismael Soltany) ancient mausoleum in the park with the swan boats, the Chor Minor - a madrassah with four minarets that features on the cover of the Lonely Planet Guide, the carved mosque pillars, the oldest minaret (this time we’re told it's all original), the fanciest bazaar and the elegant cafes in the squares and round the ornamental lakes. And another house, the Mickey House, so that's the sixth M.

Ginger and cinnamon tea, in a traditional tea house, and a productive and lucky day. I have bought a Christmas tree decoration (and some spares) to match the dozen, now sadly eleven, I bought in Samarkand last time. I have lost an earring, my laptop, my passport and a bracelet, and had them all returned. (My passport was under my bed.) Dinner is a barbeque on the platform at the station, surrounded by freight trains. It’s a little bizarre.

Samarkand Revisited

Now, the 5 Ms of Samarkand again (See here for more on Samarkand). A return to Afrosiob, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque and Tamerlane’s Tomb and a wave to the Hotel Asia, across the park (it's now got a name), and the balcony with the view I had before. It’s all still very gorgeous, very restored and very upmarket. The Islamic architecture is in stark contrast to the art nouveau and realist architecture of the apartments and shops in the adjacent ‘new’ town constructed by the Soviets. Another visit to the unmissable and unique Registan. Snacks and window shopping in the growing avenues of souvenir and tea shops, before an unexpected adventure.

The Road to Tajikistan

The train is going onto Tashkent, and I've also been there before. Passenger Shane and I noticed that Tajikistan was tantalisingly close, so we have planned a last minute side trip, with fellow traveller, Farida, over the border, instead. This involves a four hour taxi ride through the cotton harvest. There are cotton bales by the sides of the highway (as well as the usual flocks of goats and meandering along it) and minivans stacked to the gunwales with cotton pickers and/or heaps of the fleecy white stuff itself. Wisps of cotton float all across the road. As dusk approaches, the darkness is enhanced by the pall of smoke from the burning of the cotton bushes.

I’m riding in front of the van to try and ward off motion sickness. As always, being front seat passenger is a little stressful. The drivers here have no sense of lane awareness at all. We are continually within millimetres of other vehicles. At one point, when it is now dark, our driver careers down a bank, as he realises he has taken the wrong turning. Then, he overtakes on a road that is rough stone on one side, as it is being repaired. We veer hurriedly back to the carriageway, as a mammoth unlit farm truck appears out of the gloom in front of us. But it’s six o’clock and we’ve made the Tajik border.

The Tajik Border

There is one customs man. He scans my form, groans and instructs me to re-do it and lie. I have written that I am taking out more U.S. dollars than I brought in. That’s because I paid my train bill in euros, but got my change in dollars. Uzbek bureaucracy can’t cope with that. ‘Have a good journey’, he says. Over the border to Tajikistan.

Facts and Factoids

  • Uzbekistan is one of only two doubly landlocked countries in the world. A doubly landlocked country is one that is landlocked by other landlocked countries.
  • Uzbekistan's constitution restricts the presidency to two consecutive terms in office.  President Karimov was re-elected for a third term but he died in office on 2 September 2016. A joint session of both houses of the Supreme Assembly of Uzbekistan appointed Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev as interim president on 8 September 2016.
  • Handshakes are only acceptable between two men. The way to greet an Uzbek woman is to bow with your right hand placed over your heart.
  • The national dish is plov - rice pilaff

Uzbekistan - A Very Brief History

The first settlers in the region now known as Uzbekistan were Eastern Iranian nomads. Over the centuries, the area was subsumed into the Iranian Achaemenid, Macedonian rule, Iranian and Sasanian Empires. Next, the Muslims arrived and they and the subsequent Samanid Empire converted most of the people, to Islam. This was when the Silk Road developed and cities such as Samarkand, Khiva, and Bukhara began to grow rich. The Mongols invaded in the 13th century, allowing the emergence of Timur (Tamerlane) from Shahrisabz, in the 14th century. He established the Timurid Empire, from whence came most of the great buildings we see in Uzbekistan today, with his capital in Samarkand.

The Timurid dynasty were conquered in their turn by Uzbek Shaybanids in the 16th century, moving the centre of power to Bukhara. They split the region into three states: the Khanates of Khiva and Kokand, and the Emirate of Bukhara. Conquests by Emperor Babur towards the east, around Kokand, led to the foundation of the Mughal Empire in India.

All of Central Asia was gradually incorporated into the Russian Empire during the 19th century. Tashkent became the political centre of Russian Turkestan and in 1924, the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic became an independent republic within the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan declared independence as the Republic of Uzbekistan in 1991.

Is Uzbekistan Part of Russia?

Uzbekistan was a Soviet socialist republic from 1924 until 1991 and has maintained diplomatic relations with Russia. Uzbekistan remained within the rouble-zone until November 1993, but has since moved politically away from the Russian Federation.

Is Uzbekistan a Poor Country?

Uzbekistan is currently one of the poorest countries in the world, though it is fast developing. 28% of the population work on the land, but many of these people work part time on tiny plots, a subsistence living. Cotton and wheat are major crops,. The extraction of mineral wealth, including gold is increasing.

Is Uzbekistan Safe to Visit?

Violent crime against foreigners is rare, theft and mugging more common. The FCO warn against tensions on all borders and also the possibility of land mines. My visits were entirely peaceful.

Getting into Uzbekistan -   A La John Le Carre

I spend most of the day at airports and on planes, trying not to dwell on the number of planes that have gone down lately. However, the journey is without incident, except that there is a family with three young children across the plane aisle from me. They cry in concert, if not in harmony, the whole trip.

Tashkent Airport is just like a bad spy novel. It's very grey, cables hang from the ceiling and the immigration booths are ramshackle. The baggage takes an age to arrive and the handlers alternate haphazardly between two ancient creaky belts, just to keep us on our toes. Customs try to appear to be doing a thorough job, but in essence the little guy just puts rings round everything on my form.

The officers mumble in strongly accented English. I am warned that there will be dire consequences if I leave the country with more money than I take in. Unlikely that I will become an oligarch in two weeks, though as they don't actually inspect my money they won't know. The arrivals hall is in the open air outside the airport and although it's seven in the evening (I'm back in time four hours again) it's 100 degrees. And I'm immediately surrounded by taxi drivers touting for business and trying to grab my bag. Fortunately, after taking a deep breath I spot a little Sundowners notice waving at the back. That's my tour.

What To See in Uzbekistan?

If you want splendid buildings, set pieces, mausoleums and minarets, then look no further, Uzbekistan is Central Asia's main draw in this department.:

Getting Out of Uzbekistan

What's the difference between the Middle East and Central Asia I wonder? The Middle East sounds as if it ought to be further away to me. Departing Central Asia is a feat in itself. I don't recommend Tashkent airport at 5 in the morning. In fact I'm nominating this place for worst airport in the world:

1 Queue (throughout I use the word queue loosely - substitute shoving, jostling throng) to get in the airport entrance gate and have passport checked
2 Subsidiary queue to have ticket checked
3 Long queue to get in departures door
4 Queue to get all baggage scanned
5 Discover my flight time has been changed and no one has told me. Fortunately, put back rather than forward. Wait for check in to open.
6 Queue at check in. Arrive at desk to be told my visa needs to be checked at immigration service. I say I don't need a visa. He says I still need to go.
7 Eventually find immigration desk and queue. When I get to the front the man looks at my passport and says I don't need to be checked

8 Back to desk and get checked in
9 Queue for custom control where I again have to fill in a form to say I have less money than I arrived with. Hand bags are screened again.
10 Queue for passport check where I have to show the receipts for all the hotels I have stayed in (hotels also have to see these as you go along or they won't let you stay).
11 Queue to have passport and ticket checked by security control
12 Queue to have hand baggage screened for the third time

' The Wonderful World of Entertainment' on Uzbekistan Airlines only shows movies in Uzbek. There are about three of them, circa 1976.

A Diversion From The Golden Road, Uzbekistan

My tour group has been through Tashkent and The Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan and Kashgar, heading east on the Silk Road. Now we're back in Uzbekistan picking up the Silk Road in the other direction, where it's become The Golden Road to Samarkand, or so I thought. But apparently, there's a lake diversion first. And, I also have to conclude that I have picked up a bug. I trot off to the chemist, down a lethal looking cocktail and return to bed. I contemplate passing on our unexpected diversion to the reservoir, at Charvik, but decide it would cause more aggravation than I could cope with, both explaining and signing off the trip.

It's baking hot and hazy. We are skirting the edge of the desert so the hills are arid, baked brown, whilst the rivers trickling alongside the roads are a dazzling turquoise. Yet another example of nature painting the perfect palette. The stalls pointing the way are festooned with plastic swimming rings; clearly there is a seaside in Uzbekistan too.

Except that we don't get to experience it. The glacier blue reservoir is revealed in tantalising glimpses, as we climb the mountain roads above the huge dam, but our hotel has been changed at the last moment. We are in the mountains still, now five kilometres from the lake. The guest house is pleasant (especially when benchmarked against recent experiences), except for the shared bathrooms, but I don't understand the logic of driving out from Tashkent - surely there are hotels there with swimming pools? I'm very lethargic, but it's impossible to sleep with the incessant stream of English muzak that is belted out. Ironic, when no one here speaks the language.

Charvak, Uzbekistan

We detour to Charvak proper, by group request ,on the way back to Tashkent. I'm happily feeling better, but opt for a sleep on a shady bench, rather than joining the masses doing their thing on the uncomfortable looking concrete and rock perches by the water. There is every type of water sport imaginable on offer and more music churning out, over the funfair.

Others in the group are looking a bit green around the gills too. No one is anticipating our trip on the train to Bukhara tonight with any great enthusiasm, except Australian Margaret. She is one of these larger than life women whose opinion is the only one that counts. However, she is very positive and everything (it seems to me) is graded on a four point scale (good, lovely, beautiful or sensational).

Train to Bukhara

The wooden four berth compartment on our train is stifling and there are some evil smells wafting around. Drifting through the window or emanating from suffering fellow passengers? I'm unsure and I'm not going to ask. Both the window and the door have to remain open or the heat is unbearable.

I was wrong about having got rid of my bug. Either it metamorphosed or I picked up another one. I am sleeping reasonably well, but I just about fall out of my top bunk, at 3 a.m, in a rush to get to the toilet, before disaster strikes. I monopolise that part of the train for the next two hours. Enough detail on that I think, except to say that I am once again tired and spaced out. We seem to be in the habit of grading things lately so I need also to mention that the heat here is at incinerator level.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Other than that, things are looking up. I'm now at the western most point of my Silk Road journey. The hotel is clean and prettily arranged round a courtyard, in traditional style. Bukhara, a city that's over two thousand years old, is definitely worth seeing. My Lonely Planet Bible describes it as enchanting and I'm not going to argue with that. It's like being on a different planet.

Tiny alleys tip you out onto squares, with cool cafés arranged around little green lakes with fountains. Atmospheric caravanserai pop up round every corner, stuffed with trinkets. Suddenly, every bazaar caters for tourists, beautiful embroidery flutters everywhere, tastefully bright bags abound, silver earrings beckon invitingly and hats of every description proliferate; a different style for every day of the year, let alone enough to supply a party. I'm drawn to the jaunty silk numbers with tassels. Every oriental cliché from Aladdin to Ali Baba, to Sherezade to Omar Kayam is utilised. We've also gone considerably up market. Nothing is cheap and everything is priced in dollars.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan and the Five Ms 

Today it's only sizzling  again, which is helpful as we have a tour of the five Moslem Ms: minarets, mosques, mausoleums, madrassahs (courtyard schools and no-one is quite sure how to spell the word in English) and museums. Bukhara contains literally hundreds of them. dating largely from the ninth to the seventeenth centuries. As well as bazaars and caravanserais, if we want to add ABC. People have inhabited the region around Bukhara for at least five millennia, and the city has existed for half that time. Bukhara is, in the main, beautifully kept, if over restored. (The Bolshevik army had a field day here demolishing buildings.)

Ensembles of Bukhara

The Ms are arranged in a variety of appealing combinations. The more complex arrangements are known as ensembles, the ubiquitous blue tiles and soaring gates, surmounted by turquoise domes. Probably the most visited is the Po-i-Kalyan Complex. Here there's also a minaret which towers over the city in such an incredible fashion that Ghengis decided to spare it, when he came conquering. It's a shame the same can't be said for the Russians, but at least it's been rebuilt.

The legend attached to this tower (46 metres high) says that convicted criminals were executed by being thrown from the top. So, it's also known as The Tower of Death. The amazing tower also causes problems for my Margaret Scale. When she sees it she says 'Aw it's awesome', so now I will have to expedite a revision. The Kalân Mosque (around 1540) can hold twelve thousand people. The Mir-i Arab Madrassah (1535–1536) here was built by more than three thousand Persian captives.

The Lab-i Hauz (By the Pool) Complex, unsurprisingly stands by a tiled pond surrounding one of the few remaining hauz, or pond, in the city of Bukhara. The sixteenth-century Kukeldash Madrasah here, is the largest in the city. Then, there's the Bahoutdin Architectural Complex, which is a necropolis. There's so much to see, I'm already giddy.

Madrassahs of Bukhara

The surprisingly quiet Abdulaziz Khan Madrassah, has glittering muqarnas and small tiled cells for the students to study. Opposite, the earlier and therefore differently styled, more subdued, Ulugh beg Madrassah. I need to stress I'm only picking out a few of the many notable buildings here....

Mausoleums of Bukhara

The key mausoleums are in and around the park, which has a lake and boats decorated like swans. The most esteemed is the Ismail Samani Mausoleum. The intricately carved and domed cuboid is the burial place of Ismail Samani, the founder of the Samanid dynasty. It's ninth century, so one of the oldest monuments in the area. It was here when Genghis Khan' invaded and spared from destruction, as it had been buried in mud, after flooding.

The other important mausoleum, close by, is Chashma-Ayub, or Job's Spring. This is where the biblical prophet Job (Ayub in the Koran) is said to have produced a spring, by striking the ground with his staff. The current edifice dates to the reign of Timur, and features an uncommon (in the region) conical dome. Curiously, I can't find any information telling me who is actually buried here.

Mosques of Bukhara

Of course, Bukhara has many mosques. My favourite, the Chor Minor, with four towers, is not easy to locate. It's a distance away from the town centre. in a residential area. I tracked it down, after I saw it on the cover of my Lonely Planet Bible (LPB).

On the esplanade to the right from Char-Minar is a pool, likely of the same age as the rest of the building complex. Char Minar is now surrounded mainly by small houses and shops along its perimeter.

The other mosque I'm going to mention is the main Friday mosque, the Bolo Haouz, built in 1712. Plenty more intricately carved vaulting, many pillars and a curved green pool.

Museums of Bukhara

The Bolo Haouz Mosque faces the Bukhara Citadel, known as The Ark. This massive earthen fortress was initially built in the fifth century. It defended Bukhara, until it fell to Russia in 1920. In the interim it was home to many citizens, as well as the Royal Family. Today, it's an important part of the tourist circuit. It houses the throne room, the reception and coronation court, the court mosque and two museums: archaeological and historical.

A cultural show in the evening, which means folk dancing and a poor dinner. Then there is a power cut. It's not easy finding your way back to the hotel in pitch black alleys. I try not go think about who or what might be lurking in the shadows.

The Golden Road, Uzbekistan

AAAARGH the lurgy has returned yet again. Today I've been throwing up. Well, at least there is variety in the way these bugs make themselves known. And we're on our way to Samarkand. Flecker's Golden Road to Samarkand is a misnomer. The road is dirty brown semi desert with tufts of grass that are yellow or green. Though, to be fair, it does get more yellow as Samarkand approaches and the land becomes even drier. These are much poorer areas, with the usual flocks of goats and sheep, mud brick farmhouses and little wells.

The hay that can be scratched from the scraps of pasture stands in little green stooks. Patient donkeys (when not tugging huge carts) find ingenious ways, stretching leashes, and standing on three legs, to reach the most succulent remaining leaves and blades of grass. Any gaps with fertile soil are plugged with cotton fields; the Soviets turned the country into the world's fourth biggest producer. Rocky mountain ranges create a backdrop to the tableau.


We don't go straight to Samarkand, but make a diversion to the great Emir Timur (Tamerlane)'s home town of Shahrisabz. Here, the fifteenth century palaces and mausoleums are still in ruins. LPB says they give an authentic flavour of what Samarkand was like, before the restoration mob moved in. Unfortunately, the mob are already in town and vast swathes of shops and houses have been bulldozed, in readiness for the tourist hordes. They haven't yet got round to rebuilding most of the monuments. At one point, I am advised to move, to avoid tiles falling on my head.

Life in Uzbekistan

Although Uzbekistan is virtually a totalitarian state, the people on the whole seem content with Islam Karimov's rule. Or so they say. It's a Moslem country, but not a Moslem state, so whilst the people tend to dress conservatively, there are very few burkas or face coverings in evidence. The fashion is for more colourful garb and tied scarf headdresses. In the evening, and for formal occasions, both men and women opt for the golden edged pork pie hats. They look very elegant in these, matched with flowing gowns. In this region, the everyday dresses are usually matched with long pantaloons. Equality between the sexes, as we know it, is embryonic. Women are expected to be obedient to their husbands and most wives take on the role of cook-housekeeper within the extended family. The vast majority of marriages are still arranged.

Our current Russian driver isn't doing very well today. We have been stopped by policemen angling for a premium on their salary. Later, everyone complains to guide Surat about the quality of the ride itself. The driver has been specialising in white knuckle rides. The roads in the south of the country aren't great anyway and there are huge ruts. Coupled with this, the minivan of the moment doesn't seem to have much in the way of suspension, so it's like being on a bucking bronco. Surat passes the comments on to the driver, whilst we are sightseeing, but possibly not in the most tactful way. We spend the next two hours motoring at exactly 45 kph, so doubling the time of our journey.

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Our hotel for the last part of our trip, in Samarkand, appears incredibly ostentatious. It's a vast package tourist establishment that we assume has been included to try and persuade us to forget previous tribulations. As always, first impressions are deceiving. It's The Hotel in the Land That Time Forgot. There's no food on offer, no one knows when the swimming pool will open or how to get to it, (ask the swimming pool manager), there's no hot water until 6pm and the lights operate according to their own whim. More mysteriously, it does not appear to have a name. There are no information documents available and no embroidered tags on linen. So I go outside to try and solve the puzzle. The sign on top says simply 'Hotel'.

I've decided to drown my bugs with vodka. Only time will tell if this is a good idea.

All the food here gets served at room temperature, whether it's ostensibly a hot dish or a cold one. If you're not here when the breakfast buffet is set out out, then you get your eggs  at room temperature. Few of the shops, especially in the villages and small towns, have fridges, and drinks too are served at room temperature, which is pretty high, as the day wears on.

Samarkand - a Beautiful Lady with Make Up

Samarkand is the advertised jewel in the crown of Uzbekistan, Timur's capital. The locals say if Bukhara is a beautiful woman, then Samarkand is a beautiful lady with make up. Samarkand's certainly much bigger, with the sights more spread out than in Bukhara. Modern Samarkand is divided into two parts: the old city, and the new city, which was developed during the days of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. I can see all this from from my sixth floor balcony, where there is a great view of the fabled Registan ensemble of three madrassas. This hotel does have its redeeming features. No terrace seats provided, but I drag the desk chair outside to stand on and take photos.

Off to visit the 5 Ms of Samarkand. They have indeed had a great deal of make up plastered on, but are undoubtedly impressive. The same style as seen previously, but grander and more opulent; the turquoise domes are now patterned rather than plain, for example. Much of the city has been rebuilt. Some of the new bazaars resemble Bond Street, rather than having an oriental flavour and souvenirs are expensive. There are ceramics, with gorgeous intricate arts and crafts patterns.

The Registan

The Registan is the main draw in Samarkand. It was a public square, where people gathered to hear royal proclamations, - and a place of public executions. It is framed by three beautifully wrought madrassas. I'm worried that if the Registan lives up to its billing close up I may well have to revise my Margaret Scale once more. However, she declares that she is lost for words, so all is well.

Gur-e Amir Complex

The next must see in Samarkand, to the south of the Registan, is the Gur-e Amir (Tomb of the King) complex. This gorgeously tiled turquoise dome covers the tombs of Tamerlane, his sons Shah Rukh and Miran Shah and grandsons Ulugh Beg and Muhammad Sultan. There's even space for Timur's teacher Sayyid Baraka.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque

There's yet another amazing blue domed complex, north of the Registan, at Tamerlane's Mosque, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

Afrosiob - Ancient Samarkand

Samarkand ladies seem to be keen on striped ankle socks with bear motifs. They are especially common on the older women.

Today, the really ancient Samarkand, known as Afrosiob (or Marikanda depending on which guide you believe). There are earthworks and reconstructed frescoes. In this area are also the fifteenth century observatory of Ulugbek (picture up top) with some long astronomical tunnels, and the tomb of Daniel (he of lion fame). Daniel has tombs in other parts of the world too, most notably Iran. One story says that his body keeps growing so they have to keep enlarging the already very large sarcophagus. Another, that only his arm is buried here. No-one can check, as Islam forbids the opening of tombs. The finale is the sublime Avenue of Mausoleums, a whole stepped street of (heavily renovated) richly tiled tombs of assorted designs from the Tamerlane era.

Over the Border - Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan

My ANZAC tour of The Silk Road, with guide Surat, continues over the border from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan. (It's taken me a long time to learn to spell that properly.)

The crossing Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan is extremely tedious. Passports are checked at four different places before I am allowed an exit stamp. We are also enjoined to keep the registration document from each hotel we have stayed at. Guards need to look at them and other Uzbek hotels will not be allowed to register us unless they have seen these. The customs officers are bored and rifle through everything in my bag before spending ten minutes looking at all the pictures on my iPad and asking who everyone is. They are bewildered because I don't speak Russian. All foreigners speak Russian.

A Brief History of Kyrgyzstan

  • For much of the time Kyrgyzstan's has remained isolated and buffered by its mountains. But it is still on a silk Road crossroads, so the area has been subsumed by various other empires over the years.
  • The lands have been subjugated most notably by the Turkic nomads, the Mongols and the Dzungar and Kokand Khanates. In 1876, Kyrgyzstan became part of the Russian Empire, and, consequently in 1936, part of the Soviet Union, as the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1991, Kyrgyzstan declared independence from the USSR and a democratic government was established. But there has been ongoing ethnic and political conflict. The so called Tulip revolution in 2005 took the country some way towards democracy and leader Akayev coined the term to signify peaceful protest, aligned with other peaceful 'flower revolutions'.

Osh, the Capital of South Kyrgyzstan

Another minivan and another driver and Osh, Osh is both ancient (It is the oldest city in the country, estimated at more than 3000 years old) and the second town in Kyrgyzstan. There's a bustling, fascinating and friendly bazaar and another mosque, before we return to find yet another driver. The last one has been taken sick. I hope it's not an omen. We don't get lunch, as it takes so long to get through the border, so dinner is fairly early. Traditional rice plov, (pilaff) eaten on a blanket covered wooden verandah that is built out over a swift flowing river. There is a little water wheel turning to one side.

It is immediately obvious that Kyrgyzstan is much poorer and more liberal than Uzbekistan. Lenin is in favour here again, but otherwise there is little in the way of buildings or monuments to admire. The roads are decrepit, and structures are low build and crumbling with corrugated tin roofs. Most of the cars on the road are Japanese. These are cheaper when the steering wheel is on the left so fifty percent of the cars in the country are left hand drive and fifty percent right hand. There are a lot of accidents - the government, we are told, is going to take steps. There are also flies everywhere.

We are in a homestay tonight. I have been allocated the dining room and I am sleeping on a sofa bed. There is a shared bathroom and very hard toilet paper. But at least there is some. I don't think it's a good idea to inspect anything too closely. There is a huge dining table and a large flat screen TV and an extension lead with sockets. The latter might possibly have been an advantage except that there are no batteries in the remote control and the lead fuses with a loud bang when I plug in my phone. There is no WiFi. This is a residential area and outside there is nothing but trees, houses and shrieking children. It looks like an early night, Except that there are glass doors to my dining room and  no curtains or blinds.

Facts and Factoids

  • 'Kyrgy' is thought to be derived from the Turkic word for 'forty' – a reference to the 40 clans, united by the legendary hero Manas. So the country’s flag features a 40-ray sun.
  • Kyrgyzstan is most definitely landlocked. It's farther from the sea than any other individual countr.
  • The Tian Shan (Heavenly) Mountains cover over 80% of the country. with the average peak coming in at over 2000 metres. It's yet another Switzerland - "the Switzerland of Central Asia" - as a result.
  • This is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, but here, many of the five million or so population live in the mountains or countryside. Only 36% live in the cities.
  • The main income generator here, surprisingly, is gold is really king here. It accounts for 43 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s exports. It's hidden beneath the Tian Shan Mountains.
  • The second highest export is dried legumes.

Solomon's Throne

A climb up Solomon's Mountain (Sulayman Too). This is possibly Kyrgyzstan's biggest claim to a tourist trap and the only UNESCO site wholly in the country. Sulayman is a prophet in the Qur'an and this mountain is important to Muslim pilgrims, the most important sacred mountain in Central Asia. The trees and bushes on the mountain are draped with numerous "prayer flags". There are seven caves in the interior. One houses a historical museum with some wax figures.

At the top, there's a shrine which supposedly marks Solomon's grave. Women who crawl though an opening across the holy rock will, according to legend, give birth to healthy children. As if that wasn't enough, if you slide down a slippy piece of slope on the rock three times then all your back problems are cured. I try it, but it's difficult to stop without jarring your spine, so I suspect that more problems are generated than are actually cured. There's also a fifteenth-century house built by Babur (Tamerlane's descendant and the founder of the Mughal Empire), a mosque with a cemetery and a viewpoint. There's a great panoramic view of the city and the valley beyond the mountains beckoning in the distance.

As with Uzbekistan, the most interesting aspect of town visiting is people watching. The Kyrgyzs are slightly more reserved than the Uzbeks, but still friendly, and there is some great headgear. Most notable are tall felt embroidered hats for men.

Leaving Kyrgyzstan - The Irkeshtam Pass

A very well travelled lady, I met in the Philippines, told me that the dramatic scenery here on the Silk Road was the best thing she ever saw. So I have high hopes. Over the Irkeshtam Pass mountain pass, three thousand metres up. a deep gorge where the southern flank of the Tian Shan mountains meet the Pamir Mountains. The views are not undersold. It's stunning, the colour palette sublime .There are sprinklings of gers (now called yurts) and goats, horses and donkeys meander onto the twisting roads.

Sary Tash

We end today's journey in another homestay, at Sary Tash, the seven thousand metre peaks of Tajikistan painting a picture before us. I'm not looking forward to tonight. There are six of us crammed into one room - sleeping on blankets on the floor. The temperature outside is around zero degrees as the sun sets. There are two long drop toilets (grade 2 out of ten) fifty yards away. The smell is indescribable. And it's even harder to hold your breath and go to the toilet at the same time. All I've had to drink at dinner is vodka. I'm hoping it will put me to sleep and I won't have to go the toilet too often.

A diabolical night's sleep. There is a chorus of snoring all night and the ground is hard and cold. It is just about compensated for by the unfolding mountain vistas as we climb higher and higher: velvety green folds backed by white blanketed peaks and azure skies. There are no other cars on the road. Shangri-La is punctuated by stops at border crossings for more passport checks as we inch closer to China. There is the pre-border check in Kyrgyzstan, then the stamp the passport Kyrgyzstan stop, then into No Man's Land and five checks spread over 140 kilometres in China before we actually officially arrive there - in Kashgar.

The Chinese Border

On the road again, returning from our excursion to Kashgar. Back through the rocky border zone, but not so far this time, turning off over the Torugart Pass towards northern Kyrgyzstan and the Tien Shan Mountains. Border procedures are less onerous, but still irksome. However, the road is single track and not nearly as well maintained. Chinese trucks tear in the opposite direction, taking the middle of the road on the hairpin bends and causing our happy driver to shriek. There are also landslides and wash out from rivers to contend with

The Torugart Port of Entry where travellers must clear for customs, is about 70 miles from the pass itself. Several miles before the border proper there is a broken down lorry stuck in one of the wash outs. Some trucks attempt to manoeuvre round it, wobbling precariously in the mud, but there is a long queue of traffic at a standstill for 20 minutes. After much reversing we are on our way again, the scent of chamomile in the air. The truck drivers continue to be a menace; one misses us by a millimetre. I'm trying to concentrate on the peaks, which are now snow capped again, but it's difficult with all the bumping and Chinese swearing. We ascend once more to well over three thousand metres, snow lying along the side of the road.

Back to Kyrgyzstan - The Torugart Pass

There is another minibus waiting at the very top, on the border. This one has so many cracks in the wind screen it looks like a spider's web. Heaven knows how the driver can see. As we enter Kyrgyzstan the pass follows a long wide valley with the iridescent Lake of Chatyr-Kul off to one side. The highest peak in the Tian Shan is Jengish Chokusu (also called Victory Peak) on the border with China. At 7,439 metres, it is also the highest point in Kyrgyzstan Eventually, we turn off into a gorge that gradually narrows. This road, stretching for some 250 miles to Bishkek, is often impassable in winter, due to heavy snowfall and frequent avalanches.

Tash Rabat

At the end of the gorge is Tash Rabat, a famous stone caravanserai, a stone domed resting place for Silk Road travellers. Or a temple. Or a fortress. Take your pick. We drive the seven kilometres to have a look and I walk back savouring the crisp mountain air and the dinosaur like rock formations. There are little yellow and sapphire alpine flowers. It's picture postcard perfect.

Tonight, we are doing the tourist thing and staying in a yurt. The decent ones are made out of layers of felt, supported by wooden beams. Some of them, however, are plastic covered with steel poles. The locals call these Chinese yurts. There are several yurt camps set along the little stream that tumbles through the gorge. Naturally, ours is the most fleabitten. Tonight all seven of us are crammed into one tent, so I'm not going to escape the snoring. At least we have beds this time.

The snoring was considerably diminished last night. Possibly because no alcohol was consumed at last night's yurt feast of cabbage and potato with microscopic chunks of meat. Fat marmots posture and then scurry back to their burrows, as we head back down the gorge. I'm sitting up front next to the driver. There are a few perks associated with being a The Spare Part. His name is Reynard and he has the usual gold teeth (until recently these were regarded as a sign of wealth). He is driving with one bare foot and one foot in shoe and sock. I'm sure there is a good reason. I have accused him of aspiring to be English, as he spends most of his time driving on the wrong (left hand side) of the road and listening to bad eighties music, like Village People. He thinks I'm being funny.

On the Road, in Kyrgyzstan

There is very little traffic (fortunately) on our route through more wide valleys and high passes. For most of the way the road surface is very poor. No-one has done much to the highways since Kyrgyzstan left the Soviet Union and the old Russian roads have disintegrated badly. The Chinese have begun to reconstruct the roads on this side of the country too, but there is little tar-macadam in evidence yet, just plenty of piled up rocks, some concrete piping and a swarm of bulldozers. As with much of Central Asia, any car is a potential taxi. You just have to get the price right.

And, the scenery is still magnificent. The mountains vary between rolling brown and green, herds of goats and horses roam (it's still foaling season) and there are snow tipped peaks visible still for most of the time. The roadside stalls here are touting apricots and the trees in the orchards are laden with the fruit.

Issyk Kul

Kyrzgstan is landlocked and mountainous so there is no seaside. Right? Our destination today is Issyk Kul (Warm Lake). It's also known as Karakol and is the second highest lake in the world, after Titicaca, (there are nearly 2000 lakes here.) The sandy beach here is thronged with sunbathers, bright umbrellas and bouncy castles, not to mention donkey and camel rides. The water is heaving with intrepid swimmers (at 17 degrees I wouldn't exactly describe it as warm, but the lake is so named because it never freezes, because of hot springs in the depths) . A row of white capped mountains form the scenic backdrop. Around the lake, the apricot stalls are supplemented with racks of smoked fish.

Tonight's accommodation is another homestay. Yet again I'm in one of the sitting rooms with no curtains. The toilet and shower are at the bottom of the garden.

We detour along the lake to admire petroglyphs that are nearly three thousand years old. These are of interest, but the field of rocks, seemingly the remains of a moraine, is a more enjoyable experience, another great view in both directions, towards the mountains and back across the lake.

A visit to the eleventh century Burana Tower follows. It is all that remains of the ancient (ninth century) Karakhanid city of Balasagun. As with so many of these Central Asian towers, its height has been reduced by earthquakes over the centuries. This one was originally 45 metres high. and it's now only 25 metres. The whole site, including some mausoleums, is a museum and you can climb to the top of the tower, if you are feeling energetic.

As is also often the case, there's a legend associated with the tower. It says that a fortune tellers told a powerful khan that his baby daughter would die from a spider bite on her sixteenth birthday. To protect her, the khan built this tall tower for her to live in Food was thoroughly inspected and delivered in a basket via a ladder. On her sixteenth birthday the khan himself took her fruit in basket. A spider was hiding inside.

Yesterday the seaside, today Hawaii. Lunch is at a restaurant, on a lagoon full of fountains and floating pavilions and bedecked with plastic palm trees in yellow and red. There are all manner of bizarre statues. The highlight is probably the blue horse.

Bishkek, the Capital of Kyrgyzstan

Then on to Bishkek, nipping through the bottom most finger of Kazakhstan, barricaded with barbed wire. Bishkek evolved from a Russian fortress on the Silk Road called Pishpek. At first glance, the capital of Kyrgyzstan could rival Cuzco or Kathmandu for scenic city views of snowy peaks. However, it is a haphazard sprawl of residential and industrial buildings. There are wide boulevards and marble-faced public buildings, combined with numerous Soviet-style apartment blocks. I can't see any signposts, but people seem to know where they are going. I'm not sure it has a centre, although there is a square, with a statue and government buildings, with soldiers goose-stepping to change the guard this time. Here are also a couple of impressive museums, one with a collection of soviet era statues and tableaux, mostly featuring Lenin.

It's been roasting hot today and a few of us are displaying symptoms of heatstroke. (Temperatures here range from 40 degrees in Summer to minus thirty in winter.)I have compounded the situation as I have been drinking very little to avoid midnight trips to the longdrops. Early bed, with some dioralyte. Surat, the local, is red eyed and looks worse than me. He's got even more confused as the trip wears on and he lives up to the depressed Soviet stereotype. He's called both of us Sues, Susie, the whole trip so far. Tomorrow we fly back to Tashkent, to pick up The Silk Road again.

My Central Asian Tour Group

Flying in from South Korea, I seem to be on a sort of ANZAC tour of Uzbekistan and The Silk Road. Three couples, one from Australia, one from New Zealand, one from Canada. (Well the acronym still works.) And me. The spare part. One of the Kiwis is also called Sue, so it has been ordained that I will be known as Susie for the duration of the trip. The guide is called Surat and he's a bewildered little man from Tashkent.

Breakfast - I consume rice pudding, cauliflower cheese and a peach.

Tashkent, Capital of Uzbekistan

Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, was one of the major trading centres along the Silk Road, and remains one of the largest exporters of cotton, silk and textiles to Eastern Europe. It is a pleasant city with several green parks and a very modern centre. Very little that seems to predate 1970. and there are new mosques. There was an earthquake in 1966 and there's the usual ex Soviet state reconstruction.

The people of Tashkent are friendly, but also seem to regard us with a great deal of curiosity. They all stare unashamedly, especially the young men, and several groups want to include me in their photos. Blonde, curly hair is a real novelty. The women mostly wear headscarves (not hijabs) and longish floral floaty dresses. The men wear jeans and T shirts. Like the women, they are dark haired and olive skinned and tend towards thick set and squat in build. It's Eidh at the moment and many have their holiday/visit-the-city gear on. It also means that most of the bazaar and all the museums are shut.

Touring Tashkent

Although Tashkent is his home town, Surat seems to be at the peak of his indecisiveness. He looks to be improvising wildly and strangely at a loss when it comes to navigation. In the end, we accomplish a tour of the old town - brown crumbling houses. The Teleshayakh Mosque complex has the main Friday mosque (with huge minarets). the Barak Khan Madrassah ( no longer used) and several handicraft outlets. There is also the mausoleum of Abu Bakr Mohammed Kaffal Shashi. But the main attraction is the eighth century Quran - apparently the oldest Quran is existence.

In central Tashkent, is Amir Temur Square - we are now moving into Soviet and relatively modern Tashkent. The statue here commemorates one of Uzbekistan's great leaders. Amir Temur's empire spanned Central Asia, Iran, the Caucasus and parts of the middle east. The square is surrounded by wonderfully grandiose Soviet style buildings. It's a pleasant walk along Mustaqillik Maydoni, through parklands, formal gardens and by fountains, past the presidential palace, other government buildings and the Alisher Nava'i Theatre (closed for refurbishment) to Independence Square, with its huge golden globe monument.

On the way, is a palace, with a colourful history. It was built for a Romanov prince who was exiled for having an affair with an American and stealing several diamonds to fund it. Grand Prince Nikolay Konstantinovich Romanov was a first cousin of Tsar Nikolay II, It's unclear if he died, in 1917, of pneumonia or Bolshevik bullets.

Then, a trip on the metro, to see the stations (ornate like Moscow but no photos allowed). And a bus trip out to the park containing the Memorial to the Victims of Repression in Tashkent (for the thousands of Uzbeks massacred by Stalin), next to the Tashkent TV Tower. It also contains a domed museum (see above). There is a very large police presence, especially on the Metro. I suppose that's reassuring.

Lunch is a point-at-what-you-want-self-service café. Surat doesn't seem to be able to recommend dishes or know what anything is. All very odd. ( I would say that perhaps he is taking after his namesake and going dotty, but that would be a terrible joke.)

Chorzu Bazaar, Tashkent

A last quick excursion to Chorsu Bazaar, the granddaddy of them all. A huge and frenetic sprawling old style bazaar in domed and tiered new style surroundings. If you want it they've got it. The most interesting and photogenic stalls are the bakeries. The loaves (are they still called loaves? ) are disc shaped, decorated large trays propped in various displays.

The View From the Tashkent Hotel Window

Our hotel in Tashkent(ostensibly three star) is very basic and everywhere reeks of cigarette smoke. There's a sign on my bedroom window that says 'No Photography'. It might have something to do with all the satellite dishes on the tall cuboid building opposite.

It's not been a great couple of days for me. My lens cap has jammed on my main, wonderful NIKKOR camera lens and no-one, not one of these muscly men, can get it to budge. I've got blisters all over my fingers, where I've tried to unscrew it. And of course all the shops in Tashkent are shut. Tomorrow we are off into remote areas. I've lost the key to the safe deposit box in my room. My passport and my wodges of thousands of sum notes are in there (4000 sum to the pound). And something has bitten my foot. It's swollen and I can't walk very far.

The Silk Road - on the Road to the Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan

We take three smallish cars into the Fergana Valley. We are following the main Silk Road route between Samarkand and Kashgar in China. The three cars drive strictly in convoy, speeding along the highway weaving in and out of the other traffic, too close together. It's a little traumatic squashed in the front. My brake doesn't work. It was like lucky dip - which couple do I get in with? Today I'm Canadian. None of the drivers speak English and Surat isn't with us, as only foreigners are allowed through the land border into Kyrgyzstan. Mini vans aren't allowed over the mountains either, hence the Italian Job style operation. There are umpteen army posts with men toting very large guns and passport checkpoints before we get anywhere near the border. Photos are banned in numerous areas. It's all very KGB.

There don't seem to be any actual taxis here - Surat says that every car in Uzbekistan is a taxi. Most of the cars are white Chevrolets. White because they are cooler and Chevrolets because there is a big manufacturing plant here. We're speeding so fast that the scenery is a blur. This despite the fake police cars along the verges supposed to deter bad drivers. At one point I spot a herd of goats with a driver on a donkey in the opposite fast lane. We cross the Chaktal Mountains with the mandatory ex communist bloc smoke belching factory or row of marching pylons marring every potentially beautiful spot. There are head-scarved women selling melons and wheels of bread from roadside booths, interspersed with clunky unsympathetic restaurants and filling stations. It's a curious mix of Soviet and the orient.

The Silk Road - the Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan

The Fergana Valley is a lyrical land of fruit and honey. The valley is very flat, and supplies a large proportion of the world's cotton, though we can see snow tipped mountains in the distance, across the fields of white bolls.


En route, we stop at one of the oldest cities of Uzbekistan, Kokand. It is at the crossroads of the two main ancient trade routes into the Fergana Valley,

We visit a khan's reconstructed palace, a mausoleum and two more reconstructed mosques, one of which is now a museum. I'm becoming very familiar with mosaic tiling and turquoise blue domes. Though it's interesting to know that this is where the Mogul Empire originated. The Palace of Khudayar Khan was built between 1863 and 1874. He commissioned 113 rooms, set around seven courtyards. Khudayar Khan wanted his mother to live in one of the palace's grand buildings, but she refused and set up her yurt in a courtyard.

Only 19 rooms remain, partially restored after the Soviets ransacked the palace and we are allowed to visit these. The workmanship and colours - a combination of Russian and traditional Uzbek styles are exquisite.

Kokand's Juma Mosque (Friday Mosque) dates back to 1809 and has a 22 metre minaret. It now houses a small museum with displays of embroideries and ceramics.

The Madarikhan Mausoleum is the grave of the mother of Umarkhan, the ruler of Kokand. After her death, the famous Uzbek poetess Nadira, the wife of the late ruler of Kokand, decreed that a beautiful mausoleum be built over the grave of her mother-in-law. Most of the 19th century structure has disappeared, leaving only the entrance pavilion and a cemetery.

The Potters Town of Rishton

Rishton, the next stop is the go to Uzbek ceramics area. It sits on a fine quality reddish-yellow clay deposit 1-1.5 meters deep. The potters are also able to extracted various dyes, quartz sand, and fire clay from the surrounding mountains. They specialize in "ishkor" blue glaze made from ntural pigments and mountain ash plants.

Today's hotel room smells strongly of drains rather than tobacco. There's a sign in my room that tells me I will be fined if I use the towels to clean my shoes. In the restaurant I have to gear myself up to navigate the menu. These are typically long with odd sprinklings of excruciatingly unhelpful English. Top billing tonight goes to 'sloppy veal'. I thought beef stroganoff might be safe, but it comes with tomato, onion and fries instead of the rice I ordered. The next door table gets that and no fries. The food is pretty bad everywhere we've eaten so far; mostly meat in different stews and really heavily salted. I cant complain about the bill though - just over two quid.

And things are getting better. One of the drivers has managed to get the cap off my camera lens, a screwdriver was involved.

The Silk Road - Margilan,  Uzbekistan

It's not easy getting ready in the morning when you have to hold your breath every time you go into the bathroom. Every action takes careful advance planning. Today, we have a minibus. All the drivers are very law abiding. There are 2D police cars along the road reminding them to behave.

As we are travelling The Silk Road a visit to a silk factory is obligatory. This one is at Margilan. perhaps the most important silk centre on the route. According to European legend, Margilan was founded by Alexander the Great. This is a very traditional factory and the silkworm cocoons are boiled in vats over wood fuelled fires. The peoples' attire is very traditional too - they don't get many tourists. The local bazaar with its seductive sights, sounds and aromas is also worth the visit. Then, onward through the valley to Kyrgyzstan and Osh.

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